No Man is an Island

A foundation of togetherness

by Matthew Patrick

For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Jesus’ famous proclamation (Matthew 18:20) says it plainly: to be together with friends and family is to be in the presence of God. The sharing of life through love and community is central to the Christian calling. Our supportive relationships may even be the key to maintaining our own health and wellness.

In coming together as friends and family, we give each other strength. As the letter to the Hebrews states, “Let us consider
how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another” (10:24–25). Faith cannot be practiced alone. We build a foundation through a network of friends and family.

Medical studies have revealed a connection between strong relationships and the physical health of our bodies. One of the most frequently cited findings is known as “The Roseto Effect.” In 1961, Dr. Stewart Wolf encountered a community of Italian immigrants in Roseto, Pennsylvania, whose inhabitants had unusually low rates of heart attacks and almost no deaths from heart disease in an age group of men who should have been at high risk. Yet nothing in the living habits of the townspeople was associated with a special attention to heart health—they smoked cigars, drank wine, lived sedentarily. A staple of the diet? Meatballs fried in lard. Men worked in quarries where fellow workers frequently contracted illnesses from gas and dust—yet the men of Roseto appeared to be immune.

What could account for the abundance of health in this remote mining town? It wasn’t diet. It wasn’t exercise. And it wasn’t genes—relatives in Italy didn’t have low rates of heart health or longevity. The one thing setting Roseto apart, Wolf concluded, was its togetherness. The community, he observed, was cohesive, with houses close together, and everyone living more or less in the same manner. Central to the Roseto lifestyle was the shared Catholic faith of the community, which the immigrants brought with them from Italy. They worshipped together just as they ate and worked together. They were as spiritually connected as they were physically connected, and the virtues of their lifestyle were rewarded with physical health.

The health of the collective body, like an immune system, is maintained by support and care for the friend, relative, and stranger alike.

Many verses in the Bible shed light on The Roseto Effect—verses often depicting the most basic, daily kinds of shared experiences, such as sitting at the table together, or offering a friend a room in one’s home. The book of Acts provides a vivid portrait of the tight-knit lives of the apostles in the earliest days of the church: “All who believed were together and had all things in common,” the familiar verse states. “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (2:44–47). The message is that connection with other individuals inherently strengthens the faith of all adherents. The health of the community is, so to speak, contagious.

The New Testament is rife with metaphors linking health of the body to health of the community of believers. The word body as used in the New Testament refers both to the physical body and the body of Christ, or the church assembly. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, “God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (12:24–26). Paul explains that the health and wellness of the weakest member of the community determines the health of the community as a whole, just as an injury to our physical body, so long as it festers, determines the state of our overall health. The health of the collective body, like an immune system, is maintained by support and care for the friend, relative, and stranger alike.

When difficult times arise, we are told in Proverbs, genuine friends will not desert us, and a loving family will bear the challenges alongside us. “A friend loves at all times,” says the verse, “and kinsfolk are born to share adversity” (Proverbs 17:17). We aren’t meant to suffer illness or strife alone, the Bible reminds us. It is both our duty and our reward to provide help to friends and family when they are in need, just as it is from them to us.

As poet and cleric John Donne famously wrote, “No man is an island.” The more we embrace the principle of fostering togetherness, the healthier we become, both individually and in community with others. Only together do we manifest the Spirit of God. Our ability to share our moments, good and bad, with friends and family, is our greatest blessing—and may even be the key to our physical health.

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